Labor Shortage for Maine Ski Resorts

TomWhiteTomWhite expert
in NELSAP Forum Posts: 526

Updated November 16

Labor shortage challenges Maine ski resorts to be
creative as season opens

In one of the tightest labor markets in recent memory, the
state's 2 major resorts are using new strategies to fill hundreds of jobs.

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By Peter McGuire Staff Writer

 

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Sunday River ski resort is ready for the
season – it has eight trails open and nights that are cold enough to make snow
in time for the busy December holidays.

The only thing it doesn’t have is a full
complement of seasonal employees. It is advertising for more than 160
positions.

“We definitely have a huge chunk of team
members we have to hire right now,” said Sunday River Human Resources Director
Amanda Gallant.

Maine’s ski areas, which depend on thousands
of seasonal workers every year, are grappling with the most challenging labor
market in recent memory and trying creative options to fill empty positions.

Every year, Maine’s ski industry more than
triples its workforce in only a few months, hiring armies of snowmakers, lift
attendants and front office representatives, as well as servers, cooks,
housekeepers and retail salespeople. In the winter, the Sunday River and
Sugarloaf ski resorts become the biggest employers in rural Oxford and Franklin
counties, respectively. Collectively, Maine’s ski resorts added $300 million to
the Maine economy, according to a 2015 Maine Development Foundation tourism
report.

But as Maine’s labor market has tightened, ski
resorts have found it harder to fill positions. Maine’s statewide unemployment
rate has hovered around 4 percent for two straight years, the second-longest sustained
period in 40 years. In Franklin and Oxford counties, the center of Maine’s
alpine ski industry, the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent and 3.8 percent in
September, both down several points from the same time last year.

 “I
think just in general, where the economy is, hiring people is more challenging
across the board,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s director of marketing.
Sugarloaf goes from about 300 workers during the summer to more than 1,000 at
the height of the season, a steep hiring target. This year finding enough
snowmakers and employees for food and beverage, retail and guest services has
been tougher than usual, Austin said. The resort has tried to be creative, by
reaching out on social media and actively recruiting, he said.

“I would say it is noticeably more challenging
this year, but it is nothing we are concerned with from an operational
standpoint,” he said.

In the first three months of 2017, Maine’s 17
ski facilities employed 2,213 people, with total wages of $10.8 million, more
than three times the 722 employed by the industry in summer 2016, according to
Maine Department of Labor data. The average weekly wage at a ski facility in
the first quarter of 2017 was $377, according to the department.

As one of the state’s most important winter
tourist draws, Maine’s ski industry seems to be running into the same labor shortage problems that seaside resorts regularly
experience during the summer.

“Labor continues to be very tight. I do know
that several areas last year never really hit 100 percent employment,” said
Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine, the industry trade association.
“There were always job postings at the major ski areas all season long.”

Simply setting up a table at a few job fairs
to find seasonal workers doesn’t seem to work anymore, Sweetser said. Employers
have to get creative in how they hire and convince key employees to come back.

 “One
thing the tight labor market has done is I think employers appreciate their
good staff that much more,” Sweetser said. “They are taking steps to make sure
they are coming back for the next season.”

Sunday River, the third-largest ski resort in
New England, is trying new hiring techniques this season to hire the up to
1,500 workers it needs.

For the first time, the resort is offering
$300 bonuses to employees who successfully refer friends and relatives for jobs
as cooks, snowmakers and housekeepers. Other employees can get $100 to refer
someone for their department, said Gallant, the human resources director.

“The best ambassadors for the resort are our
current team members,” she said. Sunday River is currently advertising 100 open
lift operator positions, and 60 openings on its snowmaking team and dozens of
cooks, wait staff and dishwashers.

The resort has not increased its wages, but it
offers a free lift pass and retail discounts, Gallant said. If lift operators
work on two-person shifts, they make minimum wage but also get the opportunity
to ski or snowboard part of the day, she said. If operators choose to work
alone, they get paid $2 more an hour, but don’t get the opportunity to ski
during their shift, Gallant said.

Sunday River is also trying a cross-referral
program with coastal hotels and restaurants. This fall, the company met with a group
of businesses in Maine and Massachusetts and asked them to refer employees
looking for winter seasonal work, Gallant said. So far, it has confirmed about
six employees and leased out about 30 units of housing to accommodate more
people if they want to come and work for the winter. If the program succeeds,
Sunday River could refer employees back to summer seasonal businesses when the
season is over, Gallant said.

“Our goal is to get people a reliable job so
they want to come back year after year,” she said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or
at:

pmcguire@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

 

Comments

  • joshua_segaljoshua_segal expert
    Posts: 1,948
    Not surprising.  In NH, finding ski area workers has been a problem for a few years.  The economy is good and unemployment last month was reported as 2.7%.  Low paying seasonal jobs are only attractive when  the economy is in the toilet - or for that small segment of the population that combine a summer seasonal job with a winter seasonal job.  I suspect while the article is about ME, it could have been written about most of New England.
  • ciscokidciscokid expert
    Posts: 1,888
    When I collect in 3 years I'm in$377 plus free skiing I'll be there ⛷⛷⛷
  • lotsoskiinglotsoskiing expert
    Posts: 930
    Areas going to RFID cards are doing so b/c they not only don't want to pay additional people to check tix, they also can't find them
  • riverc0ilriverc0il advanced
    edited November 2017 Posts: 278

    Areas going to RFID cards are doing so b/c they not only don't want to pay additional people to check tix, they also can't find them

    RFID still needs crew standing by to address pass issues (legit or not). You need someone doing line control whether you have RFID or not.

    I suspect this is less of an economy issue and more of a younger generation flight issue. Younger generations are leaving rural areas in NH, ME, and VT for urban areas. And those younger folks are a target demographics for low paying seasonal jobs. 

    Additionally, there has been upward wage pressure coming from McDonald's and Walmart. Both are advertising $9/hour starting pay in my area ($7.25 minimum wage) and more for supervisors. I suspect most folks would rather get a permanent part time job working inside than a temporary seasonal job working outside for similar pay rates... especially if you actually like to ski.
  • NELSBEERNELSBEER advanced
    Posts: 276
    Its up to the smart folks like SJ'ers to figure out that you can work minimal hours, maybe a couple of night shifts or a weekend day for zilch pay and in return get benefits like a season pass, for more than yourself, in the right departments and a little patience. {Check your local area}

    I know a number of people that have moved on to 'real' jobs but kept their fingers in the pie by loading lifts a few nights, teaching ski school or patrolling just to keep the sport they love affordable. I even met one lady up north who had been waitressing for 25 years at a ski area, even though she was a school teacher & had a family - mostly to keep her finger in American Ski Company for an annual western trip at employee rates. Life is as good as you make it...  
  • ciscokidciscokid expert
    edited November 2017 Posts: 1,888
    Life is as good as you make it+1
    $ comes and goes, time just goes
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